By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — When Barron School parent Chris Bamforth saw a stranger with a handgun strapped to his side at a school ice cream social, he immediately became concerned.
So did other parents, including one who followed the man, until the stranger suddenly disappeared.
“We had no idea who this person was,” Bamford said.
Bamford and his wife, Patricia Bamford, were among the 22 residents who asked questions or expressed their concerns at a public forum on school security last night.
The nearly two-hour forum at Salem High School was organized by school officials in wake of the fatal shootings of 26 people, including 20 young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month. Close to 100 people attended the Salem event.
The tragedy in Newtown is a perfect example of why security needs to be improved at Salem’s eight public schools, Bamford said.
Whether it’s installing electronic buzzers that lock doors at school entrances or putting in bulletproof glass, the district needs to take measures to make sure its schools are safe, he said.
“Something more needs to be done,” Bamford said. “We have to do something, we have to do it now.”
Before Bamford spoke, the crowd heard presentations from School Superintendent Michael Delahanty, fire Chief Kevin Breen, Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten and School Resource Officer Matthew Norcross. School Board Chairwoman Pamela Berry addressed the audience as well.
Breen, Patten and Norcross told of how their departments work in conjunction with the district to keep the schools safe. Delahanty said although it’s impossible to stop a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook shootings, the goal is minimize the danger.
Patten said his department has made recommendations to the school district on how security can be improved. One possibility is the installation of “panic buttons” at the schools, Delahanty said.
“It’s not going to prevent someone from getting in,” he said. “It just means the response is going to be quick.”
But Delahanty and other officials came under fire when residents learned there is only one school resource officer for all six elementary schools and front doors to all eight district schools are not locked.
“Why wouldn’t we have an SRO in every elementary school?” asked parent Rob Hazelton.
“Tell me you are going to vote to have five SROs and I would love to have them,” Patten said.
The district has three school resource officers, each of whom is armed. The other two resource officers are at the high school and Woodbury School. Delahanty said it costs $100,000 to $115,000 a year to employ a school resource officer.
Numerous residents questioned why all front doors are not locked, even though three recently renovated elementary schools — Barron, Lancaster and North Salem — have new security systems.
The other schools do not have updated security systems. Renovations to the three other elementary schools — Soule, Fisk and Haigh — were defeated by voters last year. Proposals to spend $17 million to upgrade the three schools, including their security, are on the March ballot.
A door to the portable classrooms at Salem High needs to be left unlocked because of the high volume of students and staff entering, Delahanty said.
“God forbid, something should happen,” one mother said. “I just want to know what can be done to protect the children in the portables.”
Barron School parent Chris Carroll questioned why the school district doesn’t have some of the same top-notch security measures as other districts.
“Can we talk to other communities?” he asked.
After hearing from parents last night, Delahanty said the School Board will consider their concerns at its meeting tonight before deciding its next steps. Delahanty and Berry said locking all doors would be a “culture change” to which everyone would have to become accustomed.
Several parents said locking all doors was worth the inconvenience.
When parents asked what they and their children could do to improve safety at the schools, they were told to report any suspicious person or activity to police or school officials.
“We encourage everyone to call even if it doesn’t seem like anything,” Patten said.
After the forum, some parents, including Chris Bamford, said they were glad their concerns were heard, but wondered if anything would be done to improve school security.
“Times have changed,” said Bamford, a 1983 Salem High graduate. “We have to adapt.”